Keeping a Genealogy Task List, Part 1

Knowing What to do Next

Do you know what task you can do next to move your genealogy research forward the most? How about all the searches you need to do next time you’re on These and other questions are best asked of and answered by an effective genealogy to-do list. Such a task list serves two purposes critical to family history research.

Unobtrusive Storage

The first purpose is to capture all those opportunities you discover while you research one subject, but are too disciplined to go chasing after. We’ve all experienced the peculiar temporal slippage that happens when we succumb to temptation and follow lead after lead; time seems to compress. Hours later we break free of the phenomenon only to find that we haven’t accomplished anything except perhaps entertaining ourselves.

To be sure, being “in the zone” like that can be fun. It can be productive too, as long as we stay focused on our purpose. Otherwise our original question remains unanswered and those leads we chased go undocumented; the family history is no clearer. Whether we remain focused on the research subject or not, the right task list can help us to capture all those opportunities that would otherwise be missed. To accomplish this it must be easy to put tasks in and get back to our work so that we stay “in the zone.”

Simple, Powerful Retrieval

The second purpose of an effective task list is recalling tasks. Just retrieving the tasks isn’t enough. It can’t be like I remember my mom’s purse when I was a kid. It seemed to hold more items than the laws of physics would allow. Extracting anything below the top layer was difficult and more often than not lead to discoveries of treasures previously lost to civilization. Your task list can’t be like that purse if you’re going to effectively find your ancestors.

The task list you need will make it easy to find that one item you’re looking for. Just as importantly it must help you recall groups of related tasks. One example of the power of this ability is extracting a list of all the research tasks to be done at a specific location, even a virtual location like the Internet or a specific website. This allows you to make more efficient use of your limited time by batching tasks just like when you go grocery shopping. You try to get everything one aisle at a time without backtracking. It get’s the job done quicker. So it is with genealogy research. Your task list ought to make this a simple matter.

The Best Task List Tools

Only one of the three top genealogy applications on the Macintosh has to-do list functionality and it is extremely limited. iFamily for Leopard supports storing and recalling tasks associated with a person, but has no ability to search tasks across the database that I could find. That clearly won’t do.

I spent the morning yesterday trying to force Reunion 9 for Mac to do be a task list manager through creative and often painful contortions. The closest I came was using miscellaneous notes with clever text tags, but ultimately, retrieval was complicated and I think I sprained an ankle.

We’re going to have to look outside our genealogy software for this research tool. That’s where I’m going in the rest of this article series. I’ll walk you through several options for keeping your genealogy research task list. I’m covering several because, like shoes and genealogy software, one size does not fit all.

Until then, please share your task management approach in a comment below. Where do you keep your to-do list? What’s your system? How’s it working for you?

Other Articles in this Series


  1. Yvonne says

    I use Circus Ponies “Notebook”. It's like a loose-leaf notebook with tabs and I copy and paste notes, articles, photos, citations, etc.

  2. Linda says

    I have not found a satisfactory solution.

    I've tried using notebook software (Journier) to record findings. The software's ok, the approach doesn't seem to help me keep focused or help with managing tasks. I like the ability to record all kinds of 'stuff' in one place (links, images, text) and tag it. So that's neat. but I find that it's just one more place I have to check when I'm trying to take stock of where I am.

    I'm currently using a 'research statement' approach. For a specific problem, write what my goals are, what I have (when I start), and 'periodically' take stock & write up what I've found, what my conclusions are, what to do next. These are WORD files filed in a Research Statements folder within the family group that they pertain to. I try to come up with specific enough file names so I don't have to open the research statement to see what it pertains to.

    For each family group I have a Research Log (WORD file), recording where I've searched, if something's found, source #, associated filenames, whether incorporated into my Reunion file, etc. I have trouble keeping these up to date, especially in the 'heat of the hunt'. Perhaps having a 'generic' Research Log open while hunting, and then copying entries to the appropriate family group log would work. I should try it. LOL

    I have something approaching an 'overview' of sources found (and by implication also those 'not found' ) organized by family group. An Excel workbook for each direct ancestral family group. Collateral family groups are additional worksheets within the workbook. It started out as a way to track census finds for each individual–identifying downloaded image filenames. I've added WWI Draft Registration, state censuses finds (where appropriate), BMD. End up with a timeline column for each individual. The cell is the filename of whatever I've downloaded. My filenames start with the Reunion source number (#167 for the 1880 US census on, for example). If it's a new source and I haven't entered it yet, the filename starts with #?. Sometimes when I just feel like 'looking' I'll go to these workbooks and try to fill in the blanks. LOL I find I have more information than I'm able to effectively process. <g> But, all kidding aside, these workbooks have proved very, very helpful, and productive. I do record whether a find has been 'cited' (data entered into Reunion and sourced), but not about any intermediate steps (transcription, corresondence, etc).

    I use ahnentafel numbers to identify individuals. I've incorporated those numbers into my filenaming conventions, and into the research logs, the excel workbooks. So theoretically I should be able to use spotlight to find everything associated with an individual.

    When I come across something that looks interesting, but is a 'distraction', I print saving as PDF and file in a 'To Do” folder associated with a family group.

    Most of the above is for online research. In a library I capture as much as I can in electronic form (download scanned images to CD, digital camera), xerox if necessary. I go with a list of goals & lookups and an easy way to record searches and results. My research statements are critical to keeping me focused, as I find I very easily want to look at and capture everything. When I get home I update, and make a preliminary list for the next visit. The downfall here, is that unless diligent, information frequently is a mix of paper and electronic.

    Thus far, I have not used Reunion as part of the research process-just as a place to record findings. After seeing your video on Reunion's research logs, I'm rethinking this.

    I've found nothing approaching 'extracting a list of all the research tasks to be done at a specific location'. My census, etc overview workbooks come pretty close for my regular online searches, but they're organized by family group/individual.

    I've found using research statements to be a very powerful tool for keeping focus. A current goal is to write one up for each family group. I haven't thought through where they should be stored, or how to tag them by place/repository, etc. It would be very nice, if for example, when we go to visit family in Illinois, I could quickly retrieve the relevant research statements in order to make a 'plan' for research to attempt during that trip. Perhaps this would be a productive use of notebook software for me.

    Thanks, Ben, for all your thoughtful blogs and very helpful videos!

  3. says

    I used a spreadsheet to track management tasks. I have a “general” tab for all genealogy followup items. I have another tab for documents I need to track down. I add a new a tab for each project. Yes, I can track items in an application and I do note items for individuals in RootsMagic but I just don't have the same options for organizing and viewing the data.

    Thanks for your helpful articles and screencasts. I've even been recommending your “Creating a Genealogy Folder System on Your Mac” articles to PC genealogist friends!


  4. Karen Glass says

    I haven't any system at all right now except jotting down my “To Dos” on paper and hope that I don't misplace it.

    I would think that iWork 8 program “Numbers” would do the trick for anyone on the Mac. It is a nice program which equivalent to Excel. There is also a “Checklist” template that is customizable if you don't want to use the spreadsheet templates.

    These files can be stored online for easy retrieval. Of course, I will be interested in what Ben has in store for us on this new series. I am always interested in an easier and more efficient way of doing things like TO DOs. I don't like to waste my time.

    I enjoy all the videos and informational columns. Ben sure has been busy.

  5. Dave says

    I use Reunion, and have two notes, labeled “Research” and “ToDo” that are shown on each family card. I enter what I have found, dead ends, and possible leads under Research, and enter all my suggestions for further research under ToDo.
    Then using the Find function in Reunion, I can search for all ToDo notes with a specific location, source, name, etc. when I am ready to do a particular type of research; or I can list them all to see which is the largest category.
    I was surprised by your comment that you had trouble doing this type of thing using Reunion, and have found it to be fairly easy for a broad range of data.

  6. Yehuda says

    I'm using dextronet's to-do desklist. It is a free software, which you can use for any purpose. I also use it at work as my work assignments manager.
    The big advantage is that those tasks are on your desktop and you can see them all the time.
    You can have your hot key for adding any task, and as soon as you come across something interesting, you hit the hot key, write your thought, and continue doing whatever you did.
    You can learn more here:

  7. Leslie says

    I, also, use the note section for a separate Research list. It will contain my guesses, hints, impressions, thoughts, etc, as well as a list of citations, or even just possible avenues for future exploration. The next time I’m in the FHL or local library for research, this is where I start. This list can be printed and updated as needed

  8. says

    Hi, Dave. I'm very interested in learning more about your method. Perhaps I missed something because of wanting it to work a certain way. Or, I may have different requirements than you do. Either way I'd like to understand what you're doing. Would you email ( me a couple samples of contents of your ToDo notes so that I can try your approach?


  9. Sue McCormick says

    I just learned about this product yesterday. I would like to buy it, but a household on two retirement incomes must choose carefully.

    In the meantime, the formatting of TaskPaper and the task assignments Ben presented in the Screencast can be used limpingly in TextEdit (as someone suggested above.)

    I started doing that this evening. I keep my TextEdit list in the dock while I’m working on genealogy. I can call it up and study the notes, add necessary notes and new tasks and return to the dock.

    This is not as satisfactory as having TaskPaper would be, but it is a huge improvement over what I have been doing.

    Thanks for the information.


  10. Lawrence says

    I use jot+notes and no I don’t work for them.

    Its the most unobtrusive and complient note taking software I’ve found and lets me place images into it as well via cut and paste. I also use mindjet mondmanager for structuring information (like census info from the Uk). Its a little weird at first but once you get the internal logic it’s fast and easy to see where everything is.

    One question, why don’t any of the geneaology programs clearly display offspring inthe main windows, its so painful that they are in a seperate window and seems counter logical.

    Are geneologists really only concerned about the tree branch and not the whole tree?

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